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A Passage To Africa

African Child





Major ideas and themes

  • Author is writing about a time when he went to Africa during the war, describing what he sees and the suffering of people living. Passage changes focus from the general to the specific, starts in Somalia with 'I saw thousand hungry, lean scared and betrayed faces' and a whole then moves to the village of Gufgaduud, then to families in the village and finally to the one man he will not forget - a man who is smiling even amidst all of this suffering, who he eventually dedicates the passage to.


Text and Language Features


  • 'I saw a thousand hungry, lean, scared and betrayed faces' uses emotive language as well as listing in order to create sympathy for the Somalians, yet also suggest a kind of anonymity for them. Perhaps the anonymity suggests the way in which the Western world has ignored this suffering in the 1990s.

  • Immediately the introduction shows where the focus of the passage will turn to, the 'one I will never forget', which interests the reader about why he will never forget this face.

  • Description of the hamlet outside Gufgaduud emphasizes the isolation of the town and its disconnection from the wider world. For example, he instructs someone how to get there using time on various 'dirt tracks' (showing the poverty of village) and how there are no real landmarks or signs. He describes the place as 'in the back of beyond' using alliteration for emphasis and also 'a place the aid agencies had yet to reach', showing why the village is suffering so much, and the limited help which is being given to Somalis. A simile at the end of the paragraph 'like a ghost village' tells us that it is extremely empty, and the phrase also implies the presence of death. It might also suggest how the writer is haunted by his experiences there. Semantic field of ghosts and death continues into the next paragraph which starts with 'ghoulish manner'.

  • In paragraph 3 the writer tells us that they have seen so much horror that they can't appreciate it any longer.

  • The passage describes the journalists as 'ghoulish' while searching for 'striking pictures', showing how they may not be searching for them for the right reasons.

  • Shows how covering horrific stories becomes almost an addiction, a 'craving for drug', giving an emotionless tone to the search as he remembers it, yet in his next comments we also see his judgement on this fact - 'This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life'. This suggests that whilst he sees their actions as uncaring, he also realises (maybe slightly self-depracatingly) that it is inevitable. Yet much of this criticism seems reserved for the people in the 'sitting rooms back home', contrasting the lives of the people 'back home' with those of the people suffering in Somalia.

  • It now transitions into specific examples of people he has met.

  • The first example of Amina Abdirahman and her family is particularly moving for the reader, describing how she left her daughters to search for food, yet one them dies of hunger in her absence.

  • This is particularly moving for the reader as it describes in harsh terms a particularly terrible situation which readers can see in their own lives.

  • Listing in 'simple, frictionless, motionless deliverance' is used to convey the passive and still state of the girl who dies, because she is passing from 'state of half-life to death itself', showing how even for the living life in this place is like death, with no hope at all. Repeated 'less' shows she is lacking what the reader may take for granted.

  • 'dirt floor' again emphasizes the poverty of the family.

  • The writer gives the names and ages of the children to emphasize their youth at the time of death, and to drive the circumstances home to the reader.

  • Sentence structure in the middle of the paragraph varies longer sentences describing the situation (and the prolonged suffering of the children) with a short dramatic sentence in the middle describing the death in order to shock the reader with the quickness of it. Suggests the normality of these deaths.

  • 'famine away from the headlines, a famine of quiet suffering and lonely death', this uses anaphora (where a word is repeated at beginning of successive clauses) in this case 'famine'. This is used not only to emphasize the severity of the famine but also to make the reader feel guilt and pity for those suffering in a famine without anybody to hear them or know that it is happening.

  • Paragraph 5 describes an 'old woman' who has a wound which hasn't been treated and who is rotting in her house, unable to find food for herself.

  • 'abandoned by relations who were too weak to carry her on their journey' - creates sympathy for her, as a reader thinks of their own family abandoning them, and the way in which she's been abandoned by the world. Yet it doesn't blame the family, because they have to find food for themselves, so cannot care for her. This shows the extreme choices people have to make in this famine.

  • Vivid and sensory language in the paragraph, 'smell of decaying flesh', 'festering wound', 'yellow eyes' and 'the putrid air she recycled'. This use of language is meant to shock and disgust the reader, forcing them to understand what the situation is like there. The author doesn't shy away from presenting this in its full grotesqueness, showing how he wants to portray an accurate portrayal of what he sees.

  • The 'shattered leg had fused into the gentle V-shape of a boomerang', using a simile to make the image much more clearly for the reader.

  • 'It was rotting; she was rotting' changes 'it' from 'she' to show how broken and dehumanized she is by the famine, she has no basic no human rights. This also shows how we dehumanize those across the world who are suffering, and, like the writer, need reminding that they too are human.

  • The passage then breaks into two with a short sentence to show the change in focus to 'the face I will never forget'

  • Paragraph 7 moves from a direct presentation of the suffering to how he experienced it, and how it is shown on TV and in reports to audiences across the world.

  • The reaction of 'pity and revulsion' shows his shock at seeing people experience this, as well as directly showing how he feels for them. This justifies his use of 'revulsion', as the reader may think he is being insensitive to say that dying people were disgusting to him. Yet he justifies this, using strong language, e.g 'twin evils' to show that it is a normal emotion to experience, even though it is 'a taboo that has yet to be breached'. Again goes into detail about 'bodily functions' and 'clammy palms' and 'vomit' to make this more real for the reader as well. Suggests when he says that you 'wipe the hands on the back of your trousers' that naturally people want to wipe the experience away, not have to deal with it.

  • Pity is stirred in paragraph 9 as well, describing how the dying find no dignity in death, an old woman covers up her 'shrivelled body' as though she is ashamed of it, she has so little dignity. Also expresses the false hope of a 'dying man' who keeps his 'hoe' next to him (a farming tool), as though he still hopes to go and 'till the soil once all this is over'. This creates pity through his hope is the face of inevitable death. Sowing things is very symbolic for the hope of new life, yet life is exterminated in this place.

  • The narrator's tone changes in the next paragraph, returning to the face which he only saw for 'a few seconds', showing his fascination about the juxtaposition of a 'smile' in this landscape. The narrator cannot understand it, saying only what it was 'not' a smile about, but unable to understand why it is there. 'It touched me in a way I could not explain', showing his confusion both about why he is touched and for why the smile happened in the first place. There is contrast between things he shows very vividly in the first half and things which he cannot explain (as they are emotional) in the second half.

  • The repetition of 'smile' in these paragraphs shows his fascination with it, then when his translator explains the smile it is revealed that smile was an 'apology' for being in such a bad conditions, as though 'you had done something wrong.' This makes the reader feel pity, and shame themselves because the man feels that he has to apologise for himself, despite having done nothing wrong.

  • The passage moves on to compare this stories to other stories which the journalist has covered. This is different, as 'this smile had turned the tables on that tacit agreement;' that the journalist should be separate from his subject, even those (unusually) nothing has been said. The writer then uses comparative statements, e.g. 'us and them', 'the rich world and the poor world' in order to show the huge gap between everyone's lives and the way in which poor people are often seen as 'them', as though they are barely human. Yet this one smile has managed to bridge the gap for him. Uses a rhetorical question to make us think about how we should feel and how we should act in the face of this suffering.

  • In the penultimate paragraph, the journalist shows his resolution to 'write the story of Gufgaduud with all the power and purpose I could muster', due to his guilt and to due to his feeling that this is the only way in which he can answer the question of how one should react to other people's' suffering. The writer suggests that the only way to react to it is spreading awareness and portraying the situation as powerfully and unflinchingly as he can.

  • In the final paragraph, the narrator tells us of the 'one regret' he has about 'that brief encounter' which is that he never found out the dying man's name, and his guilt about this. The fact that he never found out his name shows that for him he became simply an object, or a moment of revelation', and without a name he becomes little more than the 'facts and figures' which the narrator thinks of as easy journalism, which doesn't show the human story. Names are what distinguish people from simply being things that are written about, shows his own dehumanisation of his subject, even though he didn't mean to. This contrasts with his revelation about the suffering that he saw. The final sentence of the passage directly addresses the man he saw, saying that the journalist owes his one because he changed his perspective. Yet the tone seems almost too casual, as though he can't really say anything significant enough to sound right in this situation.

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